Jonathan Marks has spent his career studying groups of people both near and across the globe. To an anthropologist, categorizing people is one of the most important ways to further understand them.
“We classify people in all kinds of ways, religiously, in terms of sports teams,” said Marks, a professor in UNC Charlotte’s anthropology department. “Humans make sense of things by classifying them.”
Now the professor can place himself into a new category. As the 2012 recipient of the First Citizens Bank Scholars Medal, an honor given annually to celebrate intellectual inquiry among faculty, he joins a list of 24 who have received the prestigious award in its 25-year history.
Past recipients include Roslyn Mickelson, a professor of sociology and of public policy, whose work focuses on race and gender inequality in education; and Lyman Johnson, an expert in Colonial Latin America responsible for building the Latin American studies program at the university.
Marks was awarded the medal in part for his insatiable curiosity in the field of biological anthropology – the study of the adaptations, variability, and evolution of the human species.
“I’m interested in who we are and where we came from,” he said.
Marks began his career when few anthropologists held science degrees, as he had. Besides two anthropology degrees, Marks also has a graduate degree in genetics.
“Twenty-five years ago I was sort of avant garde,” he said. “Now it’s much more common. There are a lot of anthropology departments that have some sort of genetics lab going.”
Although he doesn’t currently operate a lab at the university, Marks once did to study the genetic similarities and differences between chimpanzees and humans.
His research can be found in “What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People and their Genes”, the book he wrote in 2002.
The more he studied the DNA between the species, the more he realized that scientists can know so much and understand so little at the same time.
“We are so genetically similar to chimpanzees, and yet so different physically and behaviorally,” he said.
Humans share 98 percent of the genetic makeup as chimpanzees, but we also share 25 percent of the same DNA as daffodils, too.
Marks has spent his career chasing the idea that genetics can’t explain everything.
The race of people explained solely in biological terms is often at the forefront of his argument.
“When it comes to race, the biggest mistake you can make is to think that a classification of people into racial categories is a fact of nature,” he said. “Race is not a fact of nature.”
If that were the case, he said, biological differences between races would be more obvious. For example, one blood type would belong to just one race. “It doesn’t sort out into something like Asians are type A, Africans are type B, and Europeans are type O,” he said. “Every population has A, B and O.”
Instead, our differences rely heavily on our cultural backgrounds, and that is where race should be classified, said Marks.
“Classification is very important,” he said. “It’s fundamental to the way the human mind thinks.”